Designing S'pore's future

24 Jul 2021

Straits Times, 24 Jul 2021, Designing S'pore's future
Singapore is changing its approach to long-term planning. Rather than deciding the development needs of future generations for them, the Government is now setting a path for them to make land use decisions for themselves, when the timing is right.

To facilitate this process, the nation's latest review of its long-term land use plans will focus on flexibility and developing options - a shift away from generating a single concept plan, which has been the product of each of four such reviews since 1971.

Keeping plans flexible and adaptable will help future generations cope with the uncertainties to come, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee last Saturday at the launch of a year-long public consultation for the review.

"The existential threat of climate change, economic and technological disruptions and change, and the Covid-19 pandemic and future pandemics, are just some examples of significant developments that will change how we plan for our future city," he said.

"We must not only plan for what we know now, but also prepare for what we might know about, the known unknowns or even the unknown unknowns, and keep our plans adaptable and flexible."

Resilience amid climate change and inclusiveness to provide for an ageing population are also among the focuses of this review, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said.

Some might wonder if this flexible approach could be construed as leaving future generations to make difficult choices themselves.

But Professor Heng Chye Kiang, an architect who is director of the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said optionality is a positive trait, given the pace at which the world is changing.

He said flexibility can be achieved by converting existing spaces to uses not planned for them. For instance, surplus parking spaces or office space, school campuses that are no longer in use and void decks can be put to other uses to serve community needs.

Prof Heng added that some policy flexibility is also needed to allow for the temporary change of functions, like converting carparks to night markets.

Mr Tay Hong Beng, partner and head of real estate at professional services firm KPMG, said there is a need for a change in regulatory mindset. He gave the example of zoning in the master plan, where the permitted use for sites is predetermined by the URA.

He suggested that if the approved use for a site could be finalised only after consultations and negotiations between a developer and the authority, developers would have more freedom to be creative, and suggest infrastructure that will better meet the needs of users.

Experts say it is important that planners incorporate the voices of those who will use the spaces.

To this end, the URA has launched a public consultation that will take place in four phases between this month and next June.

Conservation scientist Koh Lian Pin said that while planners have a good grasp of what the country needs, it is equally important to find out what Singaporeans value.

Professor Koh, who is also a Nominated MP and director of the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions at NUS, said: "Our land use needs can be modelled and optimised through various science-based approaches.

"But a clear understanding of our value systems is even more important because it tells us what we should be optimising for.

"For example, I observe that businesses and individuals alike are beginning to place more emphasis on social and environmental justice and responsibility in their day-to-day decisions and choices."

He added that the consultation process is important for gathering information on value systems across different segments of society, especially that of youth, and to understand if these values may be changing over time.

Conservation expert Johannes Widodo, also from NUS, agreed that the voices of youth are important, and suggested that the URA could work with schools and civic groups to make discussions more inclusive for the young.

Said Associate Professor Widodo: "The right of future space belongs to the present-day youth."

Yale-NUS College urban sociologist Ho Kong Chong said going 24 hours in some areas is one way of combating a city's congestion, by spreading out the use of a space over time. "We need to think about the hours after midnight, especially for those working in different time zones, those who find the quiet of the night a good working environment, and young people who prefer to stay up after midnight.

"Planners need to rethink the post-midnight, pre-dawn hours... and revive the idea of a 24-hour city where there are areas that night owls can go to live, work and play. Such areas can be flexible by expanding and contracting according to demand."

This would again require planners to be flexible and allow more places to operate round the clock.

Ms Nina Yang, chief executive of development consultancy SJ CityGlobal, said the concept of a 24/7 city has always been essential in city planning.

"With the rise of other Asian cities, economic vibrancy, resiliency and a dynamic yet safe urban environment are important differentiating factors," said Ms Yang, who is also vice-president of the Singapore Institute of Planners. "How should Singapore maintain its position as an attractive international hub, while managing our limited land resource carefully?"

Professor Ho also said: "So the question for planners is how to think flexibly. We need to use space and infrastructure creatively because it's very expensive to tear down and rebuild."

One way to achieve flexibility would be to provide amenities on wheels, he said, referencing the mobile library services of the 1960s.

In fact, the National Library Board relaunched the mobile service in 2008, and it has served various groups since then, including children at pre-schools and special education schools.

Prof Ho said vans could be retrofitted for various services, which could be tweaked according to demand - hair salons, gyms or even appliance-fixing services. Users of these services would also have the opportunity to socialise.

Again, it would require changes in the rules for spaces to host such mobile services.

While much of the talk surrounding post-Covid-19 city planning has focused on the decentralisation of business districts, architecture and sustainable design assistant professor Peter Ortner said decentralisation can also be applied to utilities, in anticipation of future disruptions.

"Planners should balance efficient centralised urban systems with decentralised self-sufficient systems," said Professor Ortner, who is with the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

He cited electricity provision, which is much more efficient if generated centrally, but in the event of failure can be replaced by local generators, solar power or batteries.

Prof Ortner also said flexibility could see high-capacity, high-tech systems paired with redundant, low-tech ones as contingencies.

For instance, as travel patterns changed during the circuit breaker to curb the spread of Covid-19 last year, mobility could still be achieved as more got onto cycling paths and park connectors, and the MRT system was utilised a lot less.